Some very strange and unexpected things have been used as money in mankind’s long history. Before capitalism was capitalism, before we invented printed or metal currency, and before imperialism spread said currency to less developed countries, civilizations decided all by themselves that one specific thing was worth trading for something else.
One would expect that animal skins, salt and soap were offered in trade, but even stranger things were considered valuable to cultures all over the world, and more recently than you might think…
Cowry snail shells held mystical and ritualistic importance in tribes of every continent. They were used as money throughout Western Africa, the Native American tribes along the Pacific coast, Northern Australia, and Southeast Asia, and were so valuable that they were sometimes buried in tombs.
Bricks of Tea
Who doesn’t love a nice cup of tea? Well, in Siberia, Mongolia, China, and other Central Asian countries, it was so valuable that high-quality tea was preferred over metal coins from medieval times all the way through the second World War.
When the Black Plague hit Russia in the Middle Ages, the Russians decided to reduce the infectious rodent population by using squirrel skins as currency. They even used the teeth and claws as small change.
Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been mining copper ore for centuries. To cast the melted copper into something other than blobs, they drew two intersecting lines in the sand and poured the liquid in, which hardened it into a cross shape. It was sometimes more valuable than ivory!
Out in the Pacific Ocean, there is a small island called Yap. The people of this island didn’t have gold, silver, or any other precious deposits, so the limestone they found on an island hundreds of miles away was the most valuable stone on Earth to them. They brought it home and crafted it into huge discs up to 12 feet wide. The stones were so large and heavy that, even if they “changed hands” in trade, they weren’t moved. The whole town just agreed upon who owned each one. Even if it sank to the bottom of the ocean, everyone knew where and whose it was, and it continued to change ownership.
The ancient people of Santa Cruz in the South Pacific used the red feathers of the scarlet honeyeater bird to craft long, highly valuable coils. They were used for very important purchases like livestock and boats, and were offered as a bride price. A small number of local people are still allowed to make them today.
The Lobi tribe in Ghana was a farming community. To scare snakes from their fields, they crafted iron snakes that were worn on their bodies or placed on altars. Anything that saves the crops is extremely valuable, so the iron snakes were eventually used as money in trade.
In ancient Cameroon, Bafian potato mashers were hard to come by and only really found in the most affluent houses. They were so valuable that 30 of them could buy you a wife!